The Valley Catholic
WESLACO – Surrounded by the sounds of the black bellied whistling ducks, northern shovelers and other varieties feeding near the shallow ponds in Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, I was reminded the outdoors serve as a natural pilgrimage site.
Sometimes all it takes to embark on a pilgrimage is a step into our own backyards. We don’t have to travel far to find an hour or more to sit in a garden or beneath a tree and spend time in prayer and silence.
We might choose to travel a little further to the beach, a city park or one of the state parks or national wildlife refuges. The Rio Grande Valley is blessed with thousands of miles of natural habitat.
In this New Year, as I continue on these pilgrimages close to home, I want to include the outdoors. During my first pilgrimage to Estero Llano Grande State Park, on a cold and cloudy day in January, the ducks weren’t complaining about the cold, so how could I. I went bundled and made it a point to sit in silence.
Sitting still can be a challenge, but the natural rhythms of the wildlife in my midst created a perfect setting. Among the honey mesquites, Texas Ebonies and Huisache (Sweet Acacias), the kiskadees, ducks and even the alligators, I felt at peace.
Blessed Pope John Paul II valued his time outdoors. “Whoever really wants to find himself,” he said during one of his vacations in the Dolomites mountains, “must learn to savor nature, whose charm is so intimately linked with the silence of contemplation. The rhythms of creation establish so many paths of extraordinary beauty, along which the sensitive and believing heart easily catches the echo of the mysterious, loftier beauty that is God Himself, the Creator, the source and life of all reality.”
Msgr. Heberto Diaz, Jr., vicar general for the Diocese of Brownsville and pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Brownsville, said he finds peace outdoors and likes to pray in his garden. He said everyone needs to find their own “prayer space” and some people find it outdoors.
Msgr. Diaz, who vacations each year in national parks and served as a park ranger at Big Bend National Park in the 1980s, said he encourages his parishioners, as part of establishing a discipline of prayer, to set aside a space.
He added, “There are so many beautiful, natural places that God created. To me these are natural pilgrimage places,” he said.
Msgr. Diaz said as one observes the natural beauty of the outdoors, “each tree, each branch, you can’t help but think, ‘God’s hand was in this.’”
One of his favorite spots is Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park (in Colorado). “I like to go on early morning hikes to be the first one there (Emerald Lake) to be in a quiet space by myself with God.”
Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 after a midday Angelus, talked about nature as a “magnificent gift that presents to us the grandeur of the creator.”
“Contemplating the beauty of creation inspires us to recognize the love of the Creator, that love which “moves the sun and the stars,” he said in his message for World Day of Peace in 2010.
Closer to home, I returned to Estero Llano Grande on a sunnier day and enjoyed the visit as much as the birds and ducks relished their chance to leave their shelters and hunt for food.
Estero Llano Grande State Park is one of the nine locations for the World Birding Center. The World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley features nine sites from South Padre Island to Roma. As a migration corridor, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in the four-county area.
The centers include, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands,
Estero Llano Grande (Weslaco), Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Quinta Mazatlan (McAllen), Resaca de la Palma (Brownsville), Roma Bluffs and South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
The state parks and national wildlife refuges draw birders from around the world. Some days can get busy, but even on a busy day visitors can find some quiet near one of the ponds or trails. Estero Llano Grande, which sits on 176 acres, has more than five miles of hiking trails. The shadier spots are near the Alligator Lake. There are also some nice sitting areas near the butterfly gardens.
Susan Keefer, a volunteer at Estero Llano Grande from Vermont, said the stillness in nature energizes her. “It charges me.” She and her husband who retired 15 years ago started coming south when they started following the migration of the birds. “We became a migratory species,” she said.
Keefer and her husband lead educational programs at the park and have led them as well in Maine where they volunteer during summer months. One of the lessons she teaches students is to stop and sit still. “Magic moments,” she said, those moments when a butterfly will rest on your shoulder or a bird will approach to eat nearby, “only come when you stop.”
As I attempt to visit each of the state parks and national wildlife refuges in the Valley this year, I am thankful for the inspiration the Lord provided in January as I sat and hiked at Estero Llano Grande, “the wet place on the big plain.”
(Originally published in the February 2013 issue of The Valley Catholic newspaper.)